Ghosts Exist in These Pages

De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin is timeless and horrific

The idea of a narrative as contagion, as the means by which some uncanny door can be opened to nefarious ends, is one with plenty of permutations in horror stories. This turns up frequently in tales of cosmic horror, from H.P. Lovecraft to John Carpenter’s homage to the genre in In the Mouth of Madness. In the film Pulse (also known as Kairo), an otherworldly presence spreads through the internet, with ghastly consequences. The opening of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves also touches on this premise, and it even takes on a meta-narrative aspect in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

It isn’t hard to see why. The act of reading or watching something ostensibly gives the reader or watcher a sense of safety, a sense of distance. Narratives like this collapse that sense into something unsettling. When I was in middle school, I remember reading a story in a collection of age-appropriate scary tales where the premise was that this story in this particular book was, in fact, written by a killer; that this one copy had been prepared and placed for one reader’s eyes only, and something horrific would soon follow. (I was a particularly gullible child, which made this story particularly effective.) It was the earliest evocation of something menacing in a place where menace could be kept at a distance.

Giorgio De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin (translated from the Italian by Roman Glazov) is all about collapsing that sense of safety. Initially, there seems to be another layer of narrative cushioning built in: the story is told by a writer researching a series of killings that took place in Turin ten years earlier. As Glazov notes in his introduction, the novel was first published in the late 1970s, and was set in the then-near future, making it our recent past — but there’s a timeless quality to it that makes questions of specificity relatively moot.

From the earliest pages, there’s a sense of the supernatural at work — that, having lived through this experience, these characters are cognizant of the presence of the uncanny in the recent past. When discussing the events of a decade ago with a lawyer, the narrator ends up in a discussion of the qualities of ghost stories; later, an account of the beginnings of the killings has the same sense of subtle wrongness as a Robert Aickman story. Sleepless people convene in public spaces, and suddenly “an odd character” makes an appearance, leaving bodies in his wake. The description of one victim is particularly unsettling.

With considerable force, two hands had grabbed her by the middle of her body and then–hoopla!–raised her high enough to take her by the ankles and spin her. The whirl ended with her ruthless obliteration against a solid mass.

Slowly, the narrator discovers more fragments of something ominous: the discovery of spectral voices on recordings made around the same time as the killings leads to one scene of quiet dread — but its power comes from the incongruity of what the voices are saying, which is almost quotidian in contrast to the uncanny nature of their existence. Much of this ties back in to a phenomenon unique to the town before the killings: a library of ostensibly anonymous diaries available to peruse where, for a fee, the identities of the authors could be revealed.

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The namelessness of the narrator of this book subtly dovetails with that idea, as does the sense of a community for which questions of public and private identities are inexorably interwoven. There’s the sense throughout that the killings may have been the manifestation of a collective unease–or the harbinger of something worse. Slowly, hints emerge that the violence of a decade ago may be returning; slowly, the narrative takes on qualities of the paranoid thriller, with ominous figures and threatening actions lurking in the darkness. Questions of privacy and control come to the forefront, as do dueling themes of personal repression and political repression.

It doesn’t hurt that De Maria can juxtapose precise evocations of dreams with the anxiety of living in a totalitarian state, nor is it a bad thing (narratively speaking) that the lines between the book within the book and the book itself feel increasingly blurred. At the conclusion of The Twenty Days of Turin, the novel’s seemingly disparate elements come together in a moment that contains a more palpable sense of dread than anything I’ve read in a good long while.

As I reached the final pages, I heard a strange sound coming from a few feet away from me — one that seemed to have uncanny echoes of the sounds the narrator heard as he researched the horrors of the recent past. It seemed entirely of a piece that this haunted novel of creeping repression might carry ghosts of its own in its pages, spilling out to infest a society with its own signs of creeping authoritarianism. The sounds turned out to be my radiator crackling to life, but the fear persisted. De Maria’s novel may reference a tangible period of time, but its reach is timeless, and it’s all the more horrific for it.

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